There are some basic ingredients that you should have in your pantry if you will be preparing Korean meals or dishes on a semi-regular basis. These basic ingredients are used in the majority of Korean cooking, and can easily be used in other non-Korean preparations.
I have added links to Amazon for those who have trouble finding these items in their local area.
Chamgireum (Toasted Sesame Oil)
Sesame oil is used as a flavoring agent in many dishes, giving a nutty, slightly smoky flavor to meats, vegetables, soups and sauces. This is an important part of many Korean recipes. Sesame oil is available in many mainstream markets and in most “Asian” markets.
Doenjang (Soy Bean Paste)
Doenjang is a paste made from fermented soybeans and is used in a wide variety of dishes. Good doenjang should have an earthy aroma (not “stinky”) and have some whole bean mixed in the paste. The best doenjang is home-made, but since it takes several months to make your own, store bought is a good alternative. There are many brands available in Korean and multi-Asian markets, or from on-line retailers like H-Mart or Amazon.
Ganjang (Soy Sauce)
There are three types of soy sauce used in Korean cooking. Korean traditional soy sauce (called Joseon ganjang, 조선간장) is a by-product of making doenjang and has mostly been replaced by Japanese style dark soy sauce. Joseon ganjang is not generally available, but may be found in some larger Korean markets. Jinganjang (Dark soy sauce) is available in every Korean market and is used in nearly every facet of Korean cooking. Gukganjang is a lighter colored, saltier soy sauce used almost exclusively in soups or stews. The dark soy sauce can be used instead of the soup soy sauce in nearly any recipe.
Gochugaru (Red Pepper Powder/Flakes)
Chili powder is another widely used ingredient. It is important in most spicy dishes, essential in many types of kimchi, and can be used as a general seasoning anywhere a little “heat” is desired. Korean chili powder comes in fine, medium, and coarse grinds. The medium and coarse grinds have visible “flakes”. The fine is more like a powder and can be used as a thickening agent.
Gochugaru is available in Korean markets and many Asian markets, or on-line from stores like H-Mart or you can purchase from Amazon.
Gochujang (Chili Pepper Paste):
Gochujang is a fermented red pepper paste that is used in soups, stir fries, marinades, seasoning sauces, Korean Grill, and more. This is an essential building block for Korean cooking. There are a variety of brands, some of which are becoming available through major retailers in the ethnic or Asian aisle, though you may have to purchase from Korean or multi-Asian stores, or from on-line retailers like H-Mart or Amazon.
Rice is a must have. Typically a short or medium grain white rice. There are many brands of rice but I usually look for a Calrose style (medium grain) labeled as “New Crop”. Avoid anything labeled as “minute rice” or “parboiled” rice as these are not suitable for Korean “sticky” rice.